Tree Pests and Diseases - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:59 pm on 13th February 2020.

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Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green 1:59 pm, 13th February 2020

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, for his lyrical introduction to this debate and for the initiative shown by him and the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, in securing it.

I will begin with a sentence from the Royal Horti- cultural Society website:

“Importing plants poses potential risks of introducing new pests and diseases.”

Much of the debate has focused on the actions of individuals. The noble and learned Lord began by referring to his pine cone. Perhaps he missed the Government’s Don’t Risk It! campaign, which involved posters at ports and airports. But as the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, has just outlined, the real risk is actually from commercial imports. Individual actions form a tiny part of the problem and there is a risk that if we focus on those actions we will engage in displacement activity rather than focusing on the real problem.

Forestry Commission figures show that the plant trade has doubled over the last 10 years. In the past decade, the number of diseases brought in is the same as the number brought in over the previous 50 years, so it is rising five times as quickly. The UK Plant Health Risk Register lists five to 10 new pests and diseases every month. Any scientist will tell you that correlation is not causation, but the links are clear and well evidenced. This is globalisation in action: a change in our systems embarked upon with scant consideration for the impacts. A few people have made very large profits while the rest of us have paid.

We are inevitably going to see an increase in plant and tree pests and diseases because we are in a climate emergency. The changing weather conditions will enable pests and diseases to flourish which could not get a hold before. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, said, birds will fly around and that is the sort of thing we cannot do anything about except to be vigilant, but we can act by changing the system of how we secure our plant supplies. I say plants rather than simply trees because many noble Lords have talked about Xylella, which poses a risk across a wide variety of plants. We are also seeing huge imports of indoor plants and even cut flowers which present a risk to our native ecosystems. In 2017, those imports were worth £975 million a year. I have a direct question for the Minister: we will soon see the Government’s food strategy, so surely it is time for a horticulture strategy. We have been talking about tree nurseries, but the issue goes more broadly in terms of fruit and vegetable production. Should that not be tied in with the food strategy as well?

The fact is that a lot of the imports of trees and other plants are from the Netherlands. It set up a co-ordinated government strategy to develop its horticulture industry. I too have met some horticultural food producers in the UK who also focused on the fact that they are finding it very difficult to get finance from our banks, while banks on the continent are prepared to fund horticultural industries, which is something else to look at in the policy area.

If I were to offer the Minister some thoughts about what a horticultural strategy might look like, I would point him to the Government’s own words about their agriculture strategy and agroecology. That means working with nature and not relying on giant industrial monocultures. If we are thinking about a British tree nursery industry, what we will need is diverse small-scale holdings made up of independent businesses and co-operatives that are scattered around the country, which will help produce a more diverse stock. When I tweeted about this debate before it began, the Bristol Tree Forum came back to me asking me to stress the importance for their health of the genetic diversity of the stocks that we plant, and I am very pleased to do that. It is what we need to ensure healthy woodlands and trees.

How do we create those small, independent businesses? There is perhaps a model in the One Wales: One Planet development strategy, which allows small businesses access to land. I suggest to noble Lords that we also need to look at land reform in England to enable people to access land in order to set up small, independent tree nurseries. Another way in which the Government might act was referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady Fookes: government procurement. We have seen progress on this already, but not far from where I am standing now, the Florida fig trees in Portcullis House are an example of how government procurement traditionally has not done what it should have done to support local industry.

A number of noble Lords have referred to the need to protect woodlands from pests which are already here. Again, we should think about the agroecological approach. Reference has been made to grey squirrels. We know that supporting the spread of pine martens will help red squirrels compete against grey squirrels. Also—dare I say?—if we are thinking about deer, perhaps we should also be thinking about reintroducing the lynx as a natural control mechanism. I am talking, of course, about the rewilding of the UK. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, said, “Copy nature and you will succeed”, and that is essentially the agroecological approach.

The noble Earl, Lord Devon, referred to the heavily overstretched Forestry Commission staff and the amount of work they have to do. At the end of last year, Friends of the Earth produced a report showing that overall, the UK Government were spending less than £1 per person per year on trees, including the work of the Forestry Commission. We hear much talk of the end of austerity, so I ask the Minister whether we can expect to see a significant boost to the budget of the Forestry Commission to deal with all the threats that have been so clearly outlined today.

The Library briefing, which other noble Lords have cited, refers to the need for common frameworks for working with the devolved Administrations. We also need to see close co-operation with our European neighbours on tackling many of these pests and diseases: a co-operative approach to ensure that they are held back. I hope very much that we will see the kind of diplomatic environment which allows that to continue.